Whether it’s Carly Rae Jespen’s Call Me Maybe, Nickelback’s How You Remind Me, or Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger, we all had a song or two that has been stuck in our heads for a while and we don’t quite know why. Such an experience is called ‘Earworm’, a term which is a direct translation of the German word ‘Ohrwurm’.It has been found that around 90% of the population have had such an experience at least once a week. Earworms have been found to last between a few minutes to a couple of hours (Beaman & Williams, 2010). Although it is a common experience, around 15% of people claimed that Earworms are ‘disturbing’ and ‘unpleasant’ (Liikkanen, 2008).
WHY DOES IT HAPPEN?
Although there isn’t a definitive theory which can explain why how songs get stuck in our heads, there have been a few suggestions:
- Exposure: Some have proposed that songs/tunes are more memorable than others because we’ve listened to them a lot of times. However, a research by Victoria Williamson and her colleagues (Williamson et al., 2011) found that listening to a song is not a necessary pre-requisite for a song ‘worm-into’ our brains. Their findings suggest that being exposed to a stimuli which are (sometimes vaguely) related to a song can induce an Earworm. For instance, reading a number plate with the letters CMM can lead to remembering Call Me Maybe.
- Memories: Being in the same place where you’ve heard a song can be enough to trigger an experience.
- Mood: Williamson et al.’s findings also suggest that being in the same mood as you were when you first heard a song can also trigger Earworms.
- Boredom: The same study have also found that in some cases, Earworms begun when people were bored or in a ‘low-attention state’.
HOW CAN I STOP IT?
Now that we know the possible reasons why an Earworm manifests, we must know of any strategies of stopping it. In a research conducted by Hyman et al. (2012), participants were asked to listen to a variety of songs, from those of the Beatles to current ones like Lady Gaga’s. They then completed a number of different puzzles, with varying difficulties. After these, they were asked to report whether there are any songs that are playing on their heads (and did so again after 24 hours). They found that puzzles which are too easy and too difficult induced the most number of Earworms. The researchers suggested that:
- Earworms are manifestations of Zeigarnik Effect, i.e. we only cease to remember things/tasks when they are completed. In other words, a tune lingers in our heads because only a certain part (and not the whole of it) plays in our head. Hence, if we want it to stop, we need to consciously ‘play’ the whole of it.
- Also, after we’ve listened to a piece of music, we need to perform an activity that will keep our minds and/or bodies occupied. However, we need to consciously avoid tasks that are too easy or too difficult for us.
HERE ARE SOME EARWORM-INDUCING SONGS FOR YOU:
Beaman CP, & Williams TI (2010). Earworms (‘stuck song syndrome’): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts.British Journal of Psychology, 101(4), 637-653.
Hyman, I., Burland, N., Duskin, H., Cook, M., Roy, C., McGrath, J., and Roundhill, R. (2012). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI:10.1002/acp.2897
Liikkanen L.A. (2008) Music in everymind: Commonality of involuntary musical imagery. Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition. Sapporo, Japan.
Williamson, V., Jilka, S., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Mullensiefen, D., and Stewart, L. (2011). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical ImageryPsychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735611418553